Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological condition that affects a whole host of mental processes and can cause significant developmental delays. People with autism may struggle with basic social skills, have trouble communicating, and/or exhibit repetitive or rigid behaviors. However, ASD does not typically affect general intelligence. In fact, some individuals may show superior cognitive ability in certain areas, while autistic savants have been known to exhibit an extreme aptitude in art, music, math, or general memorization. More information is available at AutismSpeaks.org.
The symptoms of Autism (or in its less severe form, Asperger’s Syndrome) cause challenges that can persist throughout life. Daily functioning can be especially difficult for college students with ASD, who may struggle to make friends, communicate with professors, and adapt to the dynamic environment of a college campus. Fortunately, some colleges have developed support programs that uniquely cater to the needs of students “on the spectrum.”
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The 20 Best Value Autism College Support Programs Methodology
First, we created a list of all the four-year, public and private (non-profit) colleges and universities in the U.S. that offer supplementary assistance programs specifically for individuals with ASD (general learning disability programs did not count). After that, we carefully examined each program to assess the quality and comprehensiveness of the resources they offer.
We awarded each program 0, 10, or 20 points based on the quality of support it provides in five categories (maximum 100 points) to make ASD students happier and SAFER on campus:
Social (e.g. peer mentoring, social skill development, group activities)
Academic (e.g. tutoring, study hall)
Functioning (e.g. life counseling/coaching, daily check-ins, help navigating campus, advocacy support)
Residential (e.g. designated living quarters, single-room options, ASD-knowledgeable resident assistants)
Because students on the spectrum will likely want to be around like-minded peers while they are in college, we gave schools an extra boost based on the percentage of undergraduates with disabilities they have formally registered on campus. For example, a college at which 6% of the undergraduate student body has a documented learning disability would earn 6*1.5 = 9 extra points.
Lastly, we assigned points based on each school’s net price and autism college support program fees* and subtracted these values from their total score (this is a ranking about value, after all!). For example, a school with an annual net price of $25,000 and program fees of $5000/semester would lose 2.5 + 5*2 = 12.5 points.
*A few of the fee-based programs do not provide specific information about expenses. To fill in the gaps, we assigned these schools a default fee of $6,700/year, which we calculated by taking the average program cost of all the other schools in the ranking.
The University of Alabama makes autism support a collaborative affair thanks to its unique method of staffing its college transition program. Because the program is run by the University of Alabama Autism Spectrum Disorders Research Clinic, its staff includes a blend of undergraduates, graduate students, and licensed clinical psychologists. But the quality of the staff is not the only reason UA stands out among the best colleges with autism programs. In fact, ACTS primarily earns its reputation thanks to its diverse catalog of support services. These include thrice weekly check-ins with a therapist/mentor, weekly living skills check-ins, and progress reports from instructors to ensure that students are getting the help they need in the classroom.
Those who stand to benefit from one-on-one assistance might want to consider the University of West Florida. Through "Argos for Autism," this top college for autistic students provides individualized academic, social, and career support. Professional coaches not only help with academic planning and study skills, but they also work to smooth the transition to college and provide guidance on day-to-day issues. ASD students who are nervous about move-in can also take advantage of a relatively inexpensive (just $100) early move-in program. This option includes two days of activities specifically designed for undergrads who are new to dorm housing and independent living.
When Mercyhurst set out to develop its top autism college support program, it made sure to ask representatives from all administrative offices for their input. The result is a collaborative, well-rounded program that supports students in all aspects of their college life. And although it's intended primarily for students with top-notch academic skills, all participants will benefit from the dizzying range of services that AIM provides. In addition to a focus on self-advocacy and independent living, other AIM features include early registration for classes, special housing options for students on the spectrum, and an on-site social skills group.
The affordable Asperger's college support program at Western Kentucky University offers academic, social, and personal assistance to students on the spectrum. Undergrads benefit academically by attending required group "study tables" four times each week. At each session, trained tutors provide help with coursework as well as executive functioning skills. To develop their social competence, KAP members attend monthly "socials" and participate in regular activities with their mentors. And for personal growth, KAP provides access to counseling (either individually or in a group), while students who need a little extra space can opt for a private dorm room.
Edinboro's BASIS (Boro Autism Support Initiative for Success) program gives students with ASD a boost by helping them develop their daily living, social, and academic skills. To do so, this top college for students with autism provides peer mentoring and professional coaching to BASIS participants. BASIS staff members also help arrange classroom and testing accommodations for program members who have specific needs in those areas. Writing specialist services are also available for those who find written communication to be a challenge. And while program costs are already modest, Edinboro may be able to offer additional funding that further reduces any out-of-pocket expenses.
In general, Defiance College's top Asperger's college support program breaks its services into three categories: academic success, social/personal growth, and residential support. But the ASD Affinity Program will also tailor its services to each participant's individual needs. To support this approach, the program conducts personal evaluations each spring. During these evaluations, undergrads meet with staff to discuss their progress and develop a new plan for the upcoming year. Note that Defiance offers one of the most robust residential programs on this list: Dedicated apartment-style housing is available to students on the autism spectrum, and all RAs have received special training so that they can offer support, behavior modeling, and interventions as necessary.
Students anywhere on the autism spectrum will find support at the University of Montana, but those who need speech or language help will particularly appreciate the school's program. That's because this affordable college for autistic students includes direct speech language therapy as one of its five core tenets. Other areas of focus include academic and social support, where both trained professionals and classmates help program members develop their skills. The program directors use evidence-based practices (such as scripting, modeling, and social narratives) to ensure that their interventions will truly help the students who need them.
Like most options on this list of the best autism college support programs, Rutgers provides its ASD students with peer mentors, employment prep, and plenty of life skills support. But the school further distinguishes itself by personalizing its services to meet each student's needs. For example, individuals who are nervous about navigating around campus can sign up for a personalized tour of the transportation options. Faculty and mentors also work with program participants to develop goals - both academic and social - and then design strategies for achieving them. Another primary contact for students is the program coordinator, who conducts weekly check-ins and facilitates communication with teachers and classmates as needed.
Like some other options on this list, Western Michigan's affordable autism college support program begins the summer after high school. Incoming freshmen arrive on campus nearly eight weeks early, giving them plenty of time to acclimate to the dorms. During this extended orientation, they'll complete a part-time work-study job and enroll in their first college course. Once the school year begins, ASD students will benefit from a whole host of additional services, including a peer mentoring "Best Buddies" program and organized social events. WMU's Autism Services Center also offers informational workshops that run the gamut from "Dating 101" to "Test Taking Skills." And seniors can take advantage of the Workforce Recruitment Program, which connects them with federal and private-sector employers.
For individuals who need more intensive support as they pursue higher education or vocational training, Texas Tech could be the answer. This top college for students with autism runs a three-year Transition Academy program, which includes daily classes that strengthen attendees' job, social, and life skills. Students at the academy can enroll in music, fitness, and nutrition classes, plus attend various social events and participate in volunteer opportunities. What's more, academy members who plan to enter the workforce can sign up for internships that are supervised by trained job coaches.
Marshall University is one of the best colleges for autistic students. In fact, support is available for undergrads with ASD even before they start classes. The school's high school summer support program invites accepted students to campus for five weeks, during which time they'll explore the residence halls, participate in social skill-building activities, and meet their future classmates on the spectrum. Once freshman year begins, participants will transition to a more comprehensive program that focuses on five categories of individual needs: academic, communication, social, personal living, and leisure. Types of assistance range from the development of effective study skills to support strategies that build independence.
Fairleigh Dickinson's two-year COMPASS program is a great option for high-functioning students who need support as they adjust to college life. This top Asperger's college support program provides a structured schedule for enrollees, including weekly counseling, therapy, and academic support sessions in both group and individual settings. And with just six students accepted into each yearly cohort, it's an opportunity for students to get to know one another in a small, unintimidating group setting. And for those concerned about affordability, note that FDU offers a scholarship to one applicant each year.
Anyone looking for a Christian school that's also a top college for students with autism should check out Eastern University. The Pennsylvania school runs a College Success Program that includes frequent study sessions, weekly skills group meetings, individual help, and even residence hall support from on-call graduate student mentors. This comprehensive set of support mechanisms aims to help students in all aspects of college life, from academics to the challenges of living in a dorm. And because Eastern is affiliated with the American Baptist church, everyone involved in the College Success Program shares a commitment to the Christian faith and its ethics.
Autism Spectrum Navigators (ASN) is a learning support program at Bellevue that offers special courses to students on the spectrum. These ASN courses, which run alongside regular college classes, focus on skill development (including topics like interpersonal communication, stress management, and self-advocacy) as well as career prep. Instruction comes from both dedicated peer mentors and from teachers. Bellevue also invites parents to check in with quarterly progress updates, a thoughtful touch that helps involve the whole family in a student's progress. And this affordable Asperger's college support program comes at no charge, making it accessible to anyone already enrolled at Bellevue.
Most of the programs on this list focus on either the transition to college from high school or the transition from college to the job market. Loras, however, offers comprehensive four-year support that covers both ends of the spectrum. Of course, the ARCH Program provides all the standard services, including study sessions and mentoring. However, ASD freshmen will also benefit from a five-day summer transition period, while upperclassmen can get targeted career prep assistance. Thanks to this all-encompassing approach to helping students on the spectrum, Loras earns a spot as one of the best colleges with autism programs.
While many of the top colleges with autism programs focus heavily on career and job skills, Eastern Illinois's Students with Autism Transitional Education Program (STEP) focuses on easing the transition to college life. The holistic program seeks to empower students, not infantilize them, and it offers many benefits beyond the typical peer mentorships and social skills groups. For example, STEP participants who need some extra space can take advantage of a single-room option and can opt for an early move-in date to support a calmer transition. Program members can also join regularly scheduled study tables or even enroll in a personalized physical fitness program.
Above all, USF's top autism college support program focuses on real-world skill development and practical training. The career-centric program helps students find internships and work experiences that match their interests and strengths. At the same time, enrollees can also participate in group activities to improve their communication and social skills, if needed. Upon admission, students pair up with a mentor who provides assistance during weekly classes, which put a strong emphasis on finding employment and feature role-playing, group discussion, self-assessment activities, and more. Note that USF's program isn't residential, and the school doesn't recommend taking other college courses while enrolled.
For a program with goals that extend beyond students on the autism spectrum, look to the University of Idaho's Raven Scholars Program. This top college for students with autism seeks not only to empower those with ASD, but it also aims to educate the larger college community about autism. The program consists of meetings with staff (either daily or weekly), classroom support (such as tutoring and study groups), life and social skills classes, and more. Staff encourage program participants to join the school's Autism Spectrum Alliance, a campus group that organizes activities, social events, and volunteer opportunities. Social events often feature an informational component, too. For example, a group dinner might also focus on professional etiquette.
Most of the top colleges with autism programs offer such specialized services exclusively through an office of disability resources. St. Joseph's, however, has established a dedicated Center for Autism Education and Support just to administer its unique ASPIRE Program. The initiative puts a particular emphasis on the transition to college life, encouraging students to focus on developing essential social skills that will improve their chances of success. Therefore, the first two years of the program focus heavily on social and life skills classes. Participants also benefit from peer mentoring and on-campus employment. Those who re-enroll in ASPIRE as juniors and seniors can continue working in their position as a way to develop hands-on experience in a low-stress environment.
Kent State earns a spot on this list of the best colleges for autistic students thanks in part to the varied services it provides. The most comprehensive of these services is College Success for Students with Asperger's or Autism, a program that offers everything from self-advocacy training to individualized academic support and job assistance. Another option is Partnering for Achievement and Learning Success (PALS), a mentoring initiative that pairs ASD individuals with neurotypical students to help develop social skills. And finally, the Autism Advocates Program matches undergrads with a faculty member who will meet with them several times a year to develop strategies for academic and personal success on campus.
Thanks for reading our ranking of the 20 top colleges for autistic students!
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